Even with all the companies, from last summer's university graduates to national touring outfits, that claim to be geared towards reinvigorating theatrical classics, you can see more – and more extreme – treatments meted out in three weeks on the Edinburgh Fringe than in the other 49 in the rest of the country put together. To take Shakespeare alone, I have already mentioned in previous round-ups the Middle Eastern rewrite The Al-Hamlet Summit and an all-male Zimbabwean Taming Of The Shrew.
However, part of me expected to hate, or at least not to get the point of, The Bomb-Itty Of Errors (Pleasance Over The Road; venue 33), for a variety of reasons. I tend despite it all to be suspicious about jazzing Shakespeare up for the youth market; my record collection is embarrassingly "white"; and I loathe enforced jollity on a stage. Yet despite all that, I was spontaneously on my feet at the end of this wonderful show, for the first time in I can't remember how long, but certainly years.
On a set consisting of three pairs of corrugated iron doors, four rapping MCs (augmented by a DJ on the decks) change costumes at lightning speed to tell Shakespeare's story of two sets of identical twins who unexpectedly meet their missing halves. Those who know the play will marvel at how closely the plot is followed; those who don't will still be agog at the speed, energy and dexterity of it all. Because throughout, these recent NYU graduates are rhyming at high speed, across a variety of hip-hop beats, and generally getting a sell-out audience of all ages and dispositions to whoop it up big-time for 90 non-stop minutes.
Another bunch of young Americans, The Riot Group, show a terrific return to form with Victory At The Dirt Palace (The Garage; venue 81). Even though they're on a cupboard-sized stage in a cramped and airless studio, even though for most of the 75-minute piece they're all sitting down, they give their all vocally, emotionally and intellectually. The piece centres on a father and daughter who front rival network news programmes. When a September 11-style atrocity occurs (one minute, breaking news of the attack; next minute, war is declared; next minute, "We won the war", and it's all over!), the father decides to retire and pass his coveted place on to daughter K., but she's determined to make her own reputation. Precisely 103 words from King Lear are woven into the script, and K is a conflation of both the loving Cordelia and the king's other two self-serving daughters, but the intense spirit flows through the whole piece.
The laurel for bizarre Bardolatry is taken this year by Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth at the Gateway Theatre (venue 7). Dov Weinstein presents a 33-minute version of Shakespeare performed on a table-top by one-inch-high plastic ninja figures. He moves them around with magnets beneath the table, or on wire rods, or just by hand, while reciting an intelligently cut version of the script into a headset microphone. For the first ten or so minutes it's engrossing and amusing. After a while, though, the humorous pay-offs grow less frequent as we become accustomed to the style of presentation, and we end up to our surprise judging it simply as a piece of theatre rather than a prolonged conceptual gag. It sort of works, too.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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